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The Triennale of Okwi Enkwezor deals with the burning issues of France and a city of Paris that are questioning their racism. The exhibition proposal presents the keys with which to talk about a situation, the current one that is clamouring for revision.
La Triennale of Paris was born in 2006 to show, periodically, French art. Its title “La Force de l’art” (the force of art) bore witness to its patriotism as does the fact that it is held in the Grand Palais, showcase of the universal fair of 1900, that states on one of its pediments: “Monument dedicated by the Republic to the glory of French art”. The Force of art represented a scene with almost autonomous manifestations, constructed out of a formal self-sufficient and backward looking tradition that only aspired to legitimise tautologically its national grandeur.
The edition of 2012 arose with some differentiating conditions: the minister of culture Frédéric Mitterand orquestrated la Triennale as the act to reopen the recently renovated Palais de Tokyo, after a year of renovations financed in part by the Presidency of the French Republic. This re-inauguration within the margins of the electoral campaign provides an interesting context for interpretation: the racist public discourse exhibited by Nicolas Sarkozy in the last few months is quite the contrary of the choice of Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian curator well known for his post-colonial practices, as the artistic director of the event. Along with the young associate curators, Mélanie Bouteloup, Abdellah Karroum, Émilie Renard and Claire Staebler, the exhibition presents around 150 artists in a context of globalisation “in the face of the spectre of identitarian remissions”. Or what is the same: this Triennale has to be understood as an anomaly, a discontinuity.
The renovation by the architects Lacaton and Vassal, included amongst the artists present in the exhibition, continues the project that they carried out at the beginning of 2000. The space is doubled thanks to an interior public square that they themselves relate to the Jamaa El Fna in Marrakech. This topographical reference, the Maghreb but with views of the Seine, introduces a principle of de-territorialisation and re-signification that is the main axis of the Triennale: the complexity of the co-existence of post-identity subjectivities.
The slogan “Intense proximity” serves so that Enwezor can take as a point of departure French cultural anthropology, from the documentation of the expeditions of the pioneer Marcel Griaule or André Gide, to the drawings of Lévi-Strauss about string hand-games or the tattoos on the faces of the Kadiweu in Brazil, that unfold as the visual residue of the gestation of structuralist theory. The rooms accumulate pieces that are in constant friction: “Cobra verde” by Herzog or “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” by Fassbinder, coexist with formalist pieces by the now elderly Geta Bratescu or Carol Rama, with theoretical pieces such as that of Ariella Azoulay, articulations of display by Daniel Buren, performances such as the one designed by Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc and artists born in the eighties, such as Neil Beloufa and Mihut Boscu.
As well as this central exhibition, Enwezor recuperates his proposal of a series of platforms that he developed in Documenta 11. On the one had, the different online publications complete the catalogue, republishing referential essays of French post-colonialism, from Leiris to Fanon. On the other, he incorporates peripheral centres in Paris but without gobbling them up, inviting them to participate in an intellectual complicity; they aren’t occupied for the exhibition so much as each one has developed an independent project, like the story of the introduction of tropical plants into France in Bétonsalon and the performative project about the toxic, foreign bodies, those of the middle classes and the workers, developed by Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz in the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers.
From the point of view of “museums in the south”, this is a correct and stimulating proposal with huge socio-political potential. From Paris, it is an exercise of symbolic violence that it is necessary to contextualise. Though racism is impossible within the ideals of equality and fraternity that built the French Republic, the moment a concrete identity is generated a community suffers attacks, accusations of communitarianism, the codified term by which Sarkozyism refers to the anti-republican African, Caribbean or Argelian insurgence. This public space where agonizing, difference or discord have no place, applied to cultural products, explains the reason why any piece referring to a concrete and differentiated community, with a specific socio-political agenda, is qualified as threatening communitarianism or non-legitimate sociology by the academy. Maybe republicanism also explains the absence of Community Based Projects, the inexistence in its universities of Cultural Studies or, even, the eminently formal and scenographic tradition of French art.
This is where the effectiveness of the exhibition has to be measured: it is not about an exercise in globalisation, bringing together concrete cases of issues from distant contexts, shipped in to be exhibited as exotic pieces in La Triennale, so much as the selection of pieces that are integrated within a complex system of signs that verify, contradict and complicate each other, in a tense proximity. An easy criticism of the curatorship would be its incapacity to seek out this disturbing proximity in the radically close banlieue. However, the reality of a racist Republic was already obvious at the opening. Almost all the personnel in the Palais de Tokyo spaces, unlike all other art spaces in Paris, are made up of black people; even the cleaners are black. Even the Chanel shop in the nearby Avenue Montagne, is guarded by a black man. In his text Enwezor talks of triggering a civic nerve. One will have to wait and see if a Triennale under a socialist government is capable of going head to head with this disturbing proximity, with normality and without anomalies.
The title of this article comes from the song “Swerve the Reeping of All that is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)”, that forms part of the album Black Up (2011) by the hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces.